Sustainable WNC

The Gateway to Sustainability in Western North Carolina

Archive for July, 2007

How do people change? Overcoming oil addiction

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

Rob Hopkins, who started the movement to plan for “energy descent” in the UK (Kinsale, Ireland, Totnes, England, and other “Transition Towns”) has written a master’s dissertation called “Energy Descent Pathways: Evaluating Potential Responses to Peak Oil.” As a health educator myself, I found the most interesting parts to be the chapters applying theories on behavioral change and addiction to the current situation. Hopkins points out that the classic “AIDA” model (Awareness-Information-Decision-Action) does not always work when it comes to sustainability. In fact, too much information may hamper change; people may feel overwhelmed by all the problems.

According to Hopkins’ research, people don’t tend to associate sustainable consumption with any positive personal benefit or improved quality of life, but rather as requiring of sacrifice (of leisure and/or family time). Most prefer policy measures that don’t disrupt their personal routine and give tangible benefits for the local environment or their home. This could be called the “Let government take care of the problem” approach. Also, people get locked into consumption habits by institutional factors beyond their control—e.g., having bought houses in the suburbs when oil was cheap, there is no bus service to their jobs.

Anyone wanting to promote sustainable consumption must make a case for how it will improve quality of life by building more community, creating meaningful work and purposeful lives. Emphasis must be placed on local products, local currency, reforestation, seed saving, information sharing, alternative transportation. This could be called building a “parallel public infrastructure” or even a “shadow economic, social, and technological structure, ready to take over as the existing system fails.” (Ehrenfield)

Widespread public involvement is essential. Tools for making this happen include such democratic forms as focus groups, citizen panels, consensus conferences, Open Space, and World Café. Particularly useful are visioning and “back-casting.” The latter refers to working backwards from a desired future state to arrive at the needed steps to be taken.

Models for recovery

“Oil is an addiction that sustains and destroys at the same time. Like any junkie, we think we’re in control—but we’re not. If we don’t break the cycle, the cycle will break us—and much of the rest of the planet too.” – Kingsnorth (2006).

Hopkins believes that addiction characterizes every aspect of industrial society—dependency on alcohol, food, drugs, tobacco, and cheap goods. LaChance, who formulated “Twelve Steps of Ecological Spirituality,” says we must deal with collective addictions collectively. Thomas Berry calls for “cultural therapy.” We are addicted to a lifestyle made possible by the “oil slaves” that do our work, more than we are to oil per se.

A hallmark of addiction is “needing more of the substance to achieve the desired effect.” Indeed, per capita fossil fuel use has increased steadily in the U.S., without an increase in happiness. A major decrease would lead to massive malfunction at all levels in society. “Unsuccessful efforts to decrease or control use:” the Oil Depletion Protocol, a reasonable method for gradually tapering use of fossil fuel, has gained little support. “Much time spent in activities necessary to acquire the substance:” people work more hours to sustain the lifestyle; not to mention the wars in Iraq and elsewhere to gain access. “Persistent use despite evidence of harmful consequences:” climate change, air pollution, environmental degradation are well known now. There have been 160,000 deaths per year due to global climate change already. Additionally, air pollution by vehicles accounts for 310,000 deaths per year globally.

The “Trans-Theoretical Change Model,” or TTM, has been applied in the study of addictions and behavior change of both individuals and groups. It has 5 stages:
1) Pre-contemplation (resistance to change)
2) Contemplation: intention to change within the next six months; aware of pros & cons, ambivalent
3) Preparation: intending change within 1 month
4) Action: modifying lifestyle (relapse is common)
5) Maintenance: sustained new behavior pattern for an extended time, integrated into lifestyle.

However, there are no studies of how this works in a community or town. One cannot assume that each person in a community is at the same stage. Only a small percentage of the population participates if it’s assumed that everyone is ready for immediate, permanent behavior change. How to get around this problem?

- Do a survey/ brief questionnaire with a representative sample of the population to determine what percentage is at each stage of change. (The UK’s widespread resistance to wind farms puts it in stage 1, according to Hopkins.)
- Use Motivational Interviewing to explore and resolve ambivalence (particularly useful with stage 2). MI, which has been used successfully in the treatment of problem drinking, is defined as “a client-centered, directive method for enhancing intrinsic motivation to change by exploring and resolving ambivalence.” Rather than arguing in favor of change, it involves taking one of the sides of the conflict that the person is already struggling with.

The FRAMES model, also from the drug and alcohol field, stands for Feedback, Responsibility, Advice, Menu (options), Empathy and Self-Efficacy. Applying this to peak oil:
- Feedback means education about the nature of the problem behavior.
- Responsibility must be taken by many, both as individuals and as communities, to achieve the vast mobilization that’s needed.
- Advice is best given as recommendations, not prescriptions, both to individuals and to communities.
- Menu of options can be explored as a range of scenarios, used in workshops with visioning and back-casting.
- Empathy means skillful, compassionate engaging with people in a 2-way dialogue (not telling people what to do).
- Self-Efficacy is the key to success. People need to see that they are not helpless, and that their quality of life can be improved. Permaculturist David Holmgren writes, “Permaculture is the wholehearted and positive acceptance of energy descent as not only inevitable, but as a desired reality.”

In light of the above, Hopkins suggests:
1) A questionnaire to assess the readiness for change of various sectors of the public
2) Different programs for each level of readiness
3) Oral histories with elders to access ways to live with less consumption
4) Education and awareness raising with creative teaching to engage people: “learning through doing”
5) Getting a baseline and establishing indicators of progress
6) Visioning, back-casting
7) Creating an Energy Descent Action Plan and timetable (as Kinsale, Ireland has done)
8) Regular longitudinal surveys to monitor impact
9) Organizational structures
10) Despair and empowerment work (Joanna Macy)

For more on Rob Hopkins’ work, see Or go to for four downloadable documents.